We attribute certain leaders to be charismatic through “magical thinking,” according to a paper recently published in the Journal of Management.
Columbia Business School’s Michael Morris, UCLA's Maia Young and Vicki Scherwin at California State University, Long Beach wanted to explore why some managers become hailed as charismatic, visionary leaders, with consequences for employees’ attitudes and actions toward them. A well–known example of this phenomenon is Steve Jobs; his mystique as a charismatic visionary has been earned in part by his spellbinding presentations of Apple products. Would audiences be as wowed by his informal, spontaneous pitches if they observed the 10 hours of practice Jobs commits to every 10-minute pitch? Would knowing his method make him seem less magical?
The study features three different experiments. The first tests whether ascriptions of mystique are associated with perceptions that the manager is visionary and will succeed in forecasting future business trends. The second examines whether managers who perform well in the absence of an obvious success–mechanism, such as extensive practice or technical skills, are more likely to be imputed mystique and judged more capable at tasks that require vision but not those that depend on administrative skill. In the third study, subjects judged two executives — one succeeded through vision and the other succeeded through hard work. The results show that, compared to the hard–working executive, the visionary executive was judged to be more creative, curious and charismatic.
The research results suggest that charisma is sometimes an illusion. While managers can establish a reputation as a transformational, charismatic leader in a number of valid ways, managers can also gain the mystique of charisma by veiling how they accomplish what they do, like a stage magician.
“Winning in business and political endeavors comes not only from performing well, but also from managing the interpretations that others make of your performance,” said Morris, who leads Columbia Business School’s Program on Social Intelligence
While the organization may benefit from the establishment of a new executive as a leader in the eyes of the followers, such theatrics can also be dangerous, as they limit the transfer of skills from this manager to others. Hence, the research findings suggest that firms should probe more deeply when recruiting executives on the basis of charisma.
(Story materials provided by Columbia University.)